Cracks showing in Democratic support as Biden says he ‘nearly fell asleep on stage’


Cracks in support among Democratic leaders for Joe Biden’s campaign continued to widen on Wednesday ahead of his evening meeting with Democratic governors, as Barack Obama reportedly privately shared that he believed Biden’s path to re-election had become even tougher.

Biden will be talking with state governors and Capitol Hill leaders all week, officials indicated on Tuesday, in attempts to reassure them of his competence after last week’s calamitous debate performance against Donald Trump. The White House said Biden will also sit for an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Friday, to be aired over the weekend.

Related: Who could replace Joe Biden? Here are six possibilities

All but one elected national Democratic figure has continued to back Biden in public since the debate but, behind the scenes, senior figures are reportedly scrambling to plot a way forward for the troubled campaign.

At a Virginia campaign event on Tuesday evening, the US president blamed his weak debate on his international trips leading up to the event, saying: “I wasn’t very smart. I decided to travel around the world a couple times, going through around 100 time zones … before … the debate. Didn’t listen to my staff and came back and nearly fell asleep on stage. That’s no excuse but it is an explanation.”

Obama, who was president on a ticket with Biden as vice-president, has shared in private with Democratic allies who sought his counsel that Biden was already on a tough road to re-election and that road was now more rocky after the debate, the Washington Post reported late on Tuesday, citing unnamed sources familiar with the former president’s remarks.

Obama talked with Biden by phone after the debate and the the president’s re-election campaign spoke of Obama’s “unwavering support”, while the former president’s team declined to comment.

A post-debate survey commissioned by Puck news showed that 40% of voters who backed Biden in 2020 now believe he should withdraw. It also showed him now under threat from Trump in states previously considered safe by Democrats, including Virginia, New Mexico and New Hampshire.

Related: James Carville calls on Democratic party to ‘deliver change’ and replace Biden

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday also found that one in three Democrats said Biden should end his re-election campaign after the debate in Atlanta where he gave a low-energy, garbled performance.

The former first lady Michelle Obama, who has never held elected office, also led Trump 50% to 39% in a hypothetical match-up put to those responding to pollsters, Reuters reported.

As of Tuesday evening, a House Democratic aide said, there are 25 Democratic members of the House of Representatives preparing to call for Biden to step aside. Biden’s campaign, however, has continued to downplay concerns, noting that the president had raised $38m since last week.

On Tuesday Lloyd Doggett, a congressman from Texas, became the first Democrat in the House of Representatives to publicly urge the president to step aside.

Doggett said he had hoped the debate “would give some momentum” to the president’s stagnant poll ratings in key battleground states. “It did not,” he said. “Instead of reassuring voters, the president failed to effectively defend his many accomplishments and expose Trump’s many lies.”

Several prominent Democrats who previously served in the House or Senate have already spoken out, calling on Biden to step aside, and some key supporters including the former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Jim Clyburn, a representative from South Carolina, have hinted at ambivalence.

“I think it’s a legitimate question to say, is this an episode or is this a condition? When people ask that question, it’s completely legitimate – of both candidates,” Pelosi told MSNBC, adding that she had heard “mixed” views on whether Biden was fit for the presidential campaign.

Kamala Harris, the vice-president, is the top alternative to replace Biden if he decides not to continue his re-election campaign, according to seven senior sources at the Biden campaign, the White House and the Democratic National Committee with knowledge of current discussions on the topic, according to Reuters.

Democrats in private have been scathing both about the White House’s lack of transparency about the president’s apparent recent decline, and about his failure to rebound from the debate with interviews and news conferences that could have countered the concerns that he is no longer fit to serve, though all eyes will now be on the ABC interview.

“He needs to start showing and stop telling. Otherwise, he will lose more House Dems. It’s that acute,” the Punchbowl website quoted one Democrat House member as saying.

James Clyburn, the long-serving South Carolina congressman whose support was instrumental in securing Biden’s election victory in 2020, said he would support the candidacy of Kamala Harris, the vice-president, should Biden step aside.

Two other House Democrats, Jared Golden of Maine and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of Washington, have predicted publicly since the debate that they believed Trump would win November’s election.

Anger has also been voiced at the White House and campaign aides for shielding Biden from public and covering up evidence of his supposedly fading powers amid reports that this has been visible for months. Biden has given fewer press conferences than any president since Ronald Reagan, did not give a Super Bowl interview this year as is traditional, and has declined many in-depth interview opportunities with major US media platforms.

The presidential physician, Kevin O’Connor, has previously said that Biden is in excellent condition.

Some influential Democrats have floated alternatives to Biden besides Harris, including popular cabinet members and Democratic governors like Gavin Newsom from California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. But trying to sidestep Harris is wishful thinking and would be nearly impossible, these sources, who did not wish to be named, said.

If named as the party nominee, Harris, 59, would take over funds raised by the Biden campaign and inherit campaign infrastructure, the sources said. She also has the highest name recognition among all the alternatives, and the strongest polling among Democrats who could seriously be considered a candidate, the sources said.

In the Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Tuesday, Harris trailed Trump by one percentage point, at 42% to 43%, a difference that was well within the poll’s 3.5 percentage point margin of error, a showing statistically just as strong as Biden’s.



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